03/30/2012 03:25 pm ET Updated May 30, 2012

Annan's Mission Suits Damascus' Desire to Buy Time

Damascus' approval of the plan of the joint UN-Arab League Envoy Kofi Annan, on the eve of the Arab Summit in Iraq, has come as an attempt to absorb the closing statement of the Baghdad Summit. The reason for this was not rooted in fear in the Syrian regime's heart from the decisions of the Arab Summit, which it has pledged to ignore even before they are issued in Baghdad. The reason is that Russia, as well as China, wanted an Arab Summit that would place less emphasis on their role as sponsors of the Syrian leadership's obstinacy, and thus pressured Damascus to declare its agreement to the six-point plan presented by Kofi Annan. Both Russia and China are no longer in a confrontation with European countries and with the United States, as they had previously been, but have now come into a confrontation with Arab countries, especially those in the Gulf.

At this juncture, the Barack Obama Administration seems as if it is on the same side with Vladimir Putin's government in preventing tangible Arab efforts to support the Syrian opposition with weapons, funds or political stances with regard to the regime in Damascus. It is an Administration focused solely on remaining in power at any cost, and is therefore determined not to get involvedin Syria or anywhere else. It thus buries its head in the sand, refusing to even think of what would be in its interest or would serve its priorities -- i.e. weakening Iran via the Syrian gateway instead of risking the possibility for Israel to carry out a military operation against Iran that would implicate the United States. As for Putin's government, it is exercising its political skill through the vessel of skillful navigator Kofi Annan, who sails between major international players to repair relations between them -- with the most important of these players being the United States and Russia. This is while the killing machine in Syria continues to grind, with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillai recently emphasizing the systematic targeting of Syria's children. Pillai held the leadership of the Syrian government responsible for this, the same government that Annan is negotiating to maintain, not to remove, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made clear. Despite all this, things are much more complicated, and what is being put forward requires a more in-depth analysis in order to identify the features of the power struggles taking place.

Some Gulf countries have addressed with the U.S. Administration the necessity of "Afghanizing" Syria, in the sense of intelligence collaboration, training and the supply of weapons and aid to the rebels in order to topple the regime. Washington refused, and coupled its refusal with statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against arming the opposition, while shedding doubt on the latter and portraying it as an affiliate of Hamas or al Qaeda.

The Obama Administration has also clung to preventing some of its allies in the Gulf from insisting on the removal of the regime in Damascus, because this would harm it and put it in jeopardy. Indeed, it has made it perfectly clear that it is out of the question for it to apply the Afghan model or the Kosovo model, where foreign intervention took place without obtaining the consent of the Security Council or even seeking a mandate from it. Instead, the political discourse has shifted from demanding that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad step down to hiding behind the dual Russian-Chinese vetoagainst Security Council resolutions. Indeed, this veto has been "the gift that keeps on giving" for the Obama Administration. Thus at one time, it has used it to embarrass and raise the slogan of "shame", making use of undiplomatic terms. And at another, the Obama Administration has rushed to gain the approval of Russia and China through Security Council Presidential Statements, beforevoiding them of their effectiveness and raising the slogan of "consensus" to justify its new stances.

Then came Kofi Annan. He came as a joint envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States, but he insisted on acting independently, in view of his being a high-ranking diplomat, received by top leaders in the most prominent capitals. He came as a life-preserver for Damascus and a boon of salvation for Washington, Moscow and Beijing. By this he achieved the first step he had been calling for. Now, after negotiations have been held by the technical and political team sent by Annan to Damascus to negotiate with the Foreign Ministry, the six-point plan is under scrutiny and Annan himself is in jeopardy. Indeed, he is today placing his future on the line, after his past has returned to the forefront. Some view him as a means to save Syria the country from being engulfed in a civil war, while others consider him to be a means to maintain the regime and rehabilitate it.

During a closed session at one major intellectual forum, one speaker said about Kofi Annan: "after Rwanda, Bosnia, the Oil-for-Food Program, and smoking cigars with Saddam Hussein, it is time to stop giving Kofi Annan another chance and additional time" on the international scene. Others pointed to the fact that his mediation in Kenya led to keeping in power the side that had lost the elections. Some spoke of the history of his relationship with Syria's leadership, and his insistence on sparing it from being held to account when both the American and French presidents had been pushing to hold it accountable for its alleged involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri seven years ago. Yet the worst memories being brought back by some are those of the massacres in Rwanda, when Annan was Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, as well as the Oil-for-Food scandal which pointed to his family's implication in exploiting Iraq's oil funds for personal gain.

Yet there are also those who hold a completely different opinion, not just in terms of Kofi Annan's personal record as a two-term UN Secretary-General, but also in terms of his six-point plan. The UN Security Council has unanimously supported this plan, just as the Arab Summit has supported Annan and his efforts. One is therefore forced to admit that Kofi Annan has gathered international support behind him, repaired the relationship between the United States and Russia, and put forward a skillful plan that provides him with numerous means to pressure and reach conclusions in any direction he chooses. Yet this in itself places him under scrutiny and in jeopardy, perhaps to an extent he had not wished for himself. The result will then perhaps lead him to welcome his return to the spotlight, and perhaps he will regret it.

The six points which the Syrian leadership has agreed to implement should, logically, lead to the following: first, the withdrawal of government forces from the streets and back to their barracks, in conjunction with continued peaceful popular protests against the regime as a legitimate right of the Syrian people. This in itself means that the dynamic of the protests will be the one to determine whether the regime will survive or not, and that the confrontation between the leadership and the opposition must be completely unarmed, and instead be a peaceful confrontation.

Second, by virtue of one of the six points agreed upon by Damascus, the Syrian leadership must "appoint an empowered interlocutor when invited to do so by the Envoy" -- the aim being to implement its commitment to work with Annan "in an inclusive Syrian-led political process to address the legitimate aspirations and concerns of the Syrian people", without specifying or detailing them. The Security Council, in its unanimously adopted Presidential Statement, which included support for the six-point plan, announced that it was supporting Annan's mission for goals that include "facilitating a Syrian-led political transition to a democratic, plural political system, in which citizens are equal regardless of their affiliations or ethnicities or beliefs, by commencing a comprehensive political dialogue between the Syrian government and the whole spectrum of the Syrian opposition". This language is not the one the League of Arab States had adopted when it demanded that Assad hand over powers to the Vice President in order to initiate a process of political transition from the current regime based on single-party -- the Baath Party -- rule to a plural and democratic political system. Yet, this is also not the language of maintaining the present situation. Damascus' approval of the six-point plan does not necessarily represent its approval of the Presidential Statement, and this is where one of the areas of dangerous manipulation becomes prominent. Indeed, Kofi Annan replaced the demand to hand over powers to the Vice President with vague language in the first of the six points, which speaks of appointing an "empowered interlocutor," a matter contingent upon Kofi Annan's decision to activate it.

Third, the second of the six points clearly states that "the Syrian government should immediately cease troop movements towards, and end the use of heavy weapons in, population centers, and begin pullback of military concentrations in and around population centers." It adds that "similar commitments would be sought by the Envoy from the opposition and all relevant elements to stop the fighting and work with him to bring about a sustained cessation of armed violence in all its forms by all parties with an effective United Nations supervision mechanism."

Sergey Lavrov was quick to demand that the opposition agree to Annan's six-point plan in exchange for the Syrian government's approval thereof, but Annan's plan is clear in demanding that the Syrian government start first by withdrawing governmental military forces to their barracks, while Kofi Annan will "seek" to obtain similar commitments. Logically, if government forces were to withdraw, the armed opposition would not remain in the streets. And logically, if there are good intentions to implement the agreement, the starting point would be "commencing" to withdraw the large numbers of government military forces to their barracks.

Kofi Annan's acceptance of the Syrian government's approval of his six-point plan, and his announcement of this from Beijing, before heading to the Security Council to inform it of the details of what had been reached by the technical team that had negotiated with Syrian authorities, aroused anger and objections amidst Security Council circles. Moreover, not informing the Security Council of the details of the monitoring mechanism that will be formed by UN forces increased the indignation. Objections to the way Kofi Annan was behaving did not only come from the United Nations, but also from Arab countries, bearing in mind that he is the joint envoy of both the UN and the Arab League. Indeed, the Arab states were informed by Iranian officials that Kofi Annan had resolved to visit Tehran within the framework of his Syrian mission, and this greatly angered them -- first because Annan had made Iran party to the Syrian issue, which is an Arab issue; second because he completely disregarded the fact that he had been appointed an envoy of the Arab League, not just of the United Nations, and that his frame of reference includes the decisions issued by the League of Arab States; and third because he had insulted the Arab Summit, which he did not think of attending while news was being leaked of his resolve to visit Iran.

Moscow is satisfied with Annan, and is in fact highly enthusiastic about his mission, as is Beijing. Washington is relying on him and wants to protect him, and in fact to adapt to his proposals, even if they depart from the principles announced by the Obama Administration. As for Annan's mission, it is edging forward calmly and slowly, which suits the Syrian leadership that seeks to buy time because it believes this to be to its advantage, as it behaves with November in mind, in view of its electoral importance in the United States. In spite of this, perhaps the skillful navigator hides up his sleeves unconventional ideas that could lead to the astounding success of his mission -- the mission he has been entrusted with by virtue of decisions based on finding peaceful means to end single-party rule and finding ways for the regime's leadership to step down.